Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Summertime presents challenges for women affected by breast cancer. Body image often suffers if a woman hasn't come to terms with her new appearance.
It's summer and it's hot, especially in the South. Women down here don't glisten, they sweat. As temperatures soar, it becomes quite humid. Here, summer attire usually consists of lightweight clothing and less of it. Our mentality is, the more skin showing, the less body heat retained. This concept can pose a problem for those of us who've been through breast cancer surgery.
Inside our homes, it's not difficult to remain cool and comfortable since most of us have air conditioning. But outdoors, challenges abound; take the beach, for instance.
When my husband and I planned our vacation earlier this year, I knew I'd need a swimsuit. I also knew I'd need a swimsuit made especially for a woman without breasts. Since I'm a long-range planner, I began thinking about what we'd need for our trip. As I began making a mental list of items, I realized I was one item short. I didn't have a swimsuit.
The specialty shop where I purchase mastectomy bras and prostheses didn't carry mastectomy swim attire, so I wondered where I might find one. I doubted my local department store would keep them in stock. I need to find a store specializing in mastectomy products, but also one that would have a good selection of swimsuits.
The internet was full of specialty stores, but as I researched, I found that mastectomy swimsuits were rather expensive. These suits, unlike ordinary bathing suits, were made with sewn-in pockets to hold breast prostheses. These hidden pockets were designed for discreetness, as the description underneath the swimsuit claimed. As I read, I found not only would I need to purchase a mastectomy swimsuit, but also swim prostheses. Swim prostheses are specialty breast forms made of lightweight, waterproof materials. I found many websites offering them like Jodee, Amoena and even Land's End.
After perusing the websites, I finally made my choices. I chose a very modestly priced two-piece swimsuit. The top reached to the waist and the bottom of the suit was designed as comfortable swim shorts. It was cute and trendy. I also picked out a pair of swim prostheses that were in the middle of the price range offered. I'm frugal, but wanted to have a quality product. Since I'd only be at the beach for seven days, I didn't need the top-of-the-line model in swim prostheses.
The week before vacation, I began packing. Carefully, I slipped the swimsuit and swim prostheses into the suitcase. I felt prepared for time at the beach, but I was also very nervous. This would be the first time I'd donned a suit since surgery.
We reached our destination after driving half the day. After unpacking, we decided to head to the water. My husband got ready quickly and waited on me to get ready.
Pulling out my swimsuit, I slipped the new swim prostheses into the built-in pockets. It only took a minute or two to get them situated. I stepped into the swim shorts and pulled the top over my head. Looking in the mirror, I was surprised to see my reflection fooled even my eyes. It seemed that I was completely whole. No one would be the wiser.
Grabbing towels, we started down the steps of the beach house. Over the dunes, I could see people enjoying the sun and water. Halfway to our destination, I stopped. My heart was gripped with fear. Turning to my husband, I said, "I don't think I can do this." He tried to reassure me and coax me into continuing on, but I couldn't.
The disappointment on his face was evident as I turned to walk back to the beach house. Who was I kidding? I wasn't brave enough to step onto a crowded beach in this swimsuit. Even though the people around me wouldn't have any idea there was anything out of the ordinary, I knew.
I slipped inside and stepped out of my swimsuit. Carefully, I placed it back in the suitcase and made sure the prostheses were in their protective cases. Changing into shorts and a t-shirt, I made sure to put on my mastectomy bra and regular prostheses.
Feeling more comfortable, we walked back to the beach and enjoyed the sun.
My self-esteem has suffered since surgery, and although I continue to try and move past the physical aspects of what cancer has taken from me, it's been very difficult. It hurt me to disappoint my husband, but he understood after we talked about how I was feeling.
Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever be able to be normal again. It seems no matter how hard I try, I keep giving up some aspects of my life to breast cancer. This is not my desire and I know it's unhealthy.
Do others struggle with their physical appearance after breast cancer? Next month, it will have been four years since my surgery took place. How long does it take to move into acceptance and find complete healing? I wish I had the answers to these questions, but I don't.
The thing that bothers me the most is the power I've given to breast cancer. It's sad I've allowed it to usurp my life. Maybe I wouldn't have felt so embarrassed and odd if I'd chosen to have reconstructive surgery.
I'd love to hear how others have dealt with being breastless at the beach. Maybe they wear coverups or just choose to be flat chested.
Summertime should be a fun and relaxing season but for some of us, it isn't. Hopefully, your summer won't be a challenging one like mine and you can enjoy it to the fullest.